Meta Description Tags

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The Optimized PublisherWhen we talk about something being “meta,” we are aware of the self-referential nature of the object—a movie about a movie, a song about a song, etc. And when the prefix “meta” is used to talk about Search Engine Optimization (SEO), it is being self-referential in relation to your website.

In this part of my blog series on SEO for independent publishers, I encourage you to be as self-referential as possible. Because when writing great meta description tags, it’s imperative that you have content located in your HTML code that best describes a specific page on your website, as you need to talk about the books in your catalog and your company in the most descriptive way possible.

I should be honest from the start and say that meta description tags will not help your SEO, per se. They don’t affect your rankings. At all.

So why are they so important?

Instead of affecting your rankings, they will make your webpages stand out in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) and potentially improve your Click Through Rate (CTR) by providing potential customers a quick snapshot of your page information and bringing more of them to your site. Your descriptions give you an opportunity to have “selling” text that will induce someone to actually click on your link over competing sites’ pages that are also displayed in the SERPs.

The 12 participants in our evaluation of SEO factors scored an average of 1.5 (an “F” grade) on meta description tags. This was mostly due to the meta tags being absent from the page code (more than half the participants were missing meta tags). But this is a good opportunity to make some changes, write some great content and improve your CTR.

SEO Factor: Meta Description Tags

That Is So Meta

As mentioned above, meta description tags are found in the page code and used to define and describe that specific page. Think of it as conveying a summary of what that page has to offer a customer, like a one-line synopsis. Similar to how a page title would define a page’s content in less than 60 characters, a meta description tag needs to do that in less than 160 characters (including spaces). (In reality, like the page/link’s title, the search engines actually calculate the number of pixels the text will use, but for our purposes, the 160-character limit should suffice.)

Meta description tags are important for the following reasons:

Meta tag descriptions show up in the SERPs: When a user types a search term into a search engine, the results that are returned (the SERPs) contain brief descriptions of each page populated from the meta tags. These descriptions help a user further define what they are looking for. For example, a search for author “Lida R. Baker” will return a result from Wayzgoose Press that briefly defines her qualifications found on her author’s page. Of course, one of the issues is that it is about the 150th search result, so it’s doubtful that anyone would actually see it. (There’s another issue of the actual page this content is on, which we discussed in the URL Structure and Site Architecture post.)

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Search terms appear as bold text in the SERPs: As a way to further highlight search terms in the generated SERPs, Google will present search terms that are found in the meta description in bold text. This encourages the user to click on the search result that includes their search terms in bold. The more search terms highlighted, the better. In the example above, Lida R. Baker would show as bold text in the SERPs.
Social networks love meta descriptions: When a customer or author shares one of your webpages through Facebook or Twitter, the meta description of that page goes with it (unless of course you have told the social platforms to use something different—which you can do—but that’s another blog post). If Wayzgoose Press adds social integration to its pages (an SEO Factor we will discuss in further posts), a full meta description would accompany that link any time the Lida R. Baker page is shared.

Writing the Meta Way

When adding meta description tags to your pages, you need to develop content that is equal parts creativity, sales pitch and conversation. Meta tags can give you an advantage over your competitors in the SERPs if you a) use descriptions that are different from standard, boilerplate text, b) use descriptions that make use of words and phrases that your customers are looking for and c) use descriptions that meet standard sentence structure, convey information in a natural way of writing or speaking and are both relevant and engaging.

Here are some guidelines to consider when writing (or revising) meta descriptions:

Understand Keywords – When you are writing for your website, you need to have keywords at the ready to add to your content. In the case of meta descriptions for independent publishers, keywords could include the genre (fiction, non-fiction), book author, title and subject, awards or achievements. The important thing to remember: don’t just jam a lot of keywords together. It looks bad on the page and can confuse your potential customers. It is best to create a unique, readable sentence that describes the page and uses keywords where applicable.
Mind Your Letters and Spaces – Just like page titles, meta description tags are limited to a specific number of characters (including spaces) before they are cut off or truncated by a search engine. Most SEO experts agree meta tags that are under 160 characters are best. While these constraints can sometimes hamper good meta tag creation, it’s best to think of multiple, concise and complete sentences for meta tags. That way, if the content is truncated, at least some of the important information will be presented in the SERPs. Note: don’t make your descriptions too short either. They should not mirror the page title in length or breadth.
Don’t Duplicate  – As I have mentioned in many of these blog posts, duplicate content is not your friend. In the case of page content and titles, it can devalue your search ranking. For meta descriptions, it can confuse your customers. On InterVarsity Press, most of the meta tags areRemember, you want each meta tag to accurately describe a specific page in your website. Repeating these tags will prevent potential site visitors from knowing what’s on your page, and they may go to a competitor’s site that has a more robust description.

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Add a Call to Action – While it may not fit for all your webpages, a call to action within the meta tags may entice a customer to visit your site before the others. Offers may include markdowns, free evaluations of potential submissions, author workshops or limited stock for a specific book. Attractors, such as “learn more” or “find out now,” are popular calls to action in the meta tags.
Sell Your Content – In addition to writing in complete sentences and thoughts, be persuasive when developing your meta content. Think about the value of your books in relation to what your customers want. A good meta description will advertise the important information while encouraging the customer to learn more about the subject. Ask yourself, “If I were a customer, would I want to click this link?”

And keep in mind, that if you don’t have the meta description set, Google will choose one for you, and that might not be the text that you want. We had one client that didn’t have any descriptions set, and had a drop-down at the top of the page so the user could select the country they were in. Google used the first 160 or so characters of the country list as the description whenever any of their pages showed up in the SERPs. Needless to say, they weren’t getting a lot of organic traffic to their site.

Keeping It Meta

Meta tags may seem like a lot of work, especially for publishers with large catalogs and a rich roster of authors. But once you start to see results, the time and effort you spend will be worth it. I should also add that meta tags should not be part of the “set it and forget it” content of your website. Set an editorial calendar for your meta descriptions and revise them as necessary. The more meta work you do, the sharper your message will be when presented in the SERPs.

Have a look at Google Search Console Support for additional guidelines on creating great meta description tags.

It should also be noted that Google’s Snippets team recommends a meta tag for a book to have much less descriptive and selling text than we usually recommend to Biztegra’s Publishr clients. This would result in a meta tag code that would look like this:. This is one area where we differ in opinion from what Google tells us. In our work at Biztegra we focus on doing with clients what we’ve outlined in the post above.

We will be maintaining our focus on “self-referential” content and delving further into the code in our next post on creating great heading (H1, H2, H3) tags.

What do your descriptions look like? Let me know in the comments below.

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